Mon Jan 20, 2003

The Length of Two Lives

The story goes that when Chou En Lai was asked what he thought the consequences of the French Revolution had been, he replied “It is too early to tell.” As I’ve written before I’m always trying to get the students in my social theory class to broaden their historical perspective, because classical social theory is fundamentally a historical project. I have a hard time convincing them that the French Revolution wasn’t all that long ago, which isn’t a surprise. For one thing, the earliest major news event most of them remember (I know this because I polled them last week) is the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. For some of them, it’s the fall of the Berlin wall.

With that in mind, here’s a story from the BBC about the death of the oldest living Civil War Widow on the Union Side. Gertrude Janeway married veteran John Janeway in 1927, when she was 18 and he was 81. There is now remaining tie of this kind. Alberta Martin, aged 95, was married to a Confederate soldier and still lives in Alabama.

Two long lives bring you back to the middle of the 19th century. One more and you are at the beginning of modernity. Chou was right. It is too early to tell.